For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

Under Weber’s Shadow: Modernity, Subjectivity and Politics in Habermas, Arendt and MacIntyre

by Breen, Keith (2016)


Under Weber's Shadow presents an extended critical evaluation of the social and political thought of Jürgen Habermas, Hannah Arendt and Alasdair MacIntyre. Although hailing from very different philosophical traditions, these theorists all take as their starting-point Max Weber's seminal diagnosis of late modernity, the view that the world-historic processes of rationalization and disenchantment are paradoxical in promising freedom yet threatening servitude under the 'iron cage' of instrumental reason. However, each rejects his pessimistic understanding of the grounds and possibilities of political life, accusing him of complicity in the very realities he sought to resist. Seeking to move beyond Weber's monological view of the self, his subjectivism and his identification of the political with domination, they offer alternative, intersubjective conceptions of the subject, ethics and politics that allow for positive future possibilities. But this incontrovertible gain, it is argued, comes at the cost of depoliticizing key arenas of human endeavour and of neglecting the reality of struggle and contestation. Engaging with important current debates and literature, Keith Breen provides a rigorous analysis of the work of Habermas, Arendt, MacIntyre and Weber and a highly accessible and original intervention within contemporary social and political thought. Under Weber's Shadow will therefore be of interest to students and researchers alike within the areas of social and political theory, as well as those within the disciplines of ethics, sociology and philosophy.

Key Passage

MacIntyre takes care to note that external goods ‘genuinely are goods’, that practices such as fishing or farming are simultaneously directed towards internal and external ends, and that all practices require external goods to endure, a feature of his thought which will be emphasized below (Chapter 7.1), yet the meaning of practical activity transcends products, power or wealth. Hence the third feature of practices, their being activities where actors’ ‘achieve something of universal worth’, ‘transform ... and educate themselves through their own self-transformative activity’. Within practices, actors do not just attain extrinsic ends, but exhibit, actualize and extend their innate powers. Action and work are here not something incidental, subservient to consumption, but fundamental modes of being in which individuals take hold of their lives. The means they deploy in producing art works or in ordering their political life are thus inseparably bound to the ends they hope to achieve. One is not a worker or consumer, a generic figure, but rather a painter, farmer or citizen, a character whose exertions are not extraneous to but provide the bedrock of one’s identity. MacIntyre and Weber agree that modern occupational structures entail a ‘renunciation’ of the ‘universality of man’. It is therefore a misreading to think MacIntyre a conservative or communitarian relativist, for motivating his thought is Marx’s hope for an end to ‘alienation’, the dissociation of humanity from its essential powers. Yet the non-alienated life is an integrated life, hence MacIntyre’s idea of ‘narrative unity’. In line with the socio-historical sense of intersubjectivity, for an actor to know her good, she must know how that good manifests itself in her various historically effected roles as daughter, mother, citizen, craftsperson and believer.  (p.168)


Macintyre, Habermas, Arendt, Bureaucratic Individualism, Ethical Polity, Modernity, Political Struggle, Aristotle, Fortuna


On MacIntyre

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